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En Root

En Root

Anthropologist and Senator Darcy Ribeiro died on February 17. He was
considered by most an accomplished educator, novelist, anthropologist,
and politician. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso went to his funeral
and even declared a national three-day mourning period in the days following
his death. Was he only a façade? Was Ribeiro the shrewdest cheater
Brazil has ever seen? That’s what this article wants to prove.

By Joan Peterson

The coast of Brazil was already a legal possession when the Portuguese arrived in the
New World in April 1500—by chance according to some accounts, having been blown off
course on a voyage originally intended for India. The rights to this land were made
possible by the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by Portugal and Spain in 1494, which
effectively parceled the lands of the New World between them.

The new arrivals were essentially traders, who saw little other than the plentiful
dyewood called pau brasil that might be profitably traded in the New World. For the
next several decades, occasional forays were made inland by these brazilwood merchants, or
brasileiros, to obtain this commodity for which the new land ultimately was named.
It was not until the 1530s, however, that settlers began to arrive.

The coastal Tupi Indians were the first aboriginal people to interact with the
Portuguese, and in general, these contacts were peaceful.

For years, settlers came to Brazil without their women—wives, if they were
married, or female relatives. They soon found that the native women were far from
reluctant to assume the white women’s role in bed as well as in the kitchen. As a result,
Brazilian cookery developed with a solid native core—the heritage of these first
Brazilian cooks and mothers of the first Brazilians born in the New World.

Since the humid, tropical environment was unsuitable for wheat and several other crops
the Portuguese men were accustomed to eating, they were forced to develop many new eating
habits based on indigenous foods. Of the many foods introduced by the native cooks, the manioc
tuber, or cassava root, was a profound dietary change for these colonists. It was the
main staple of the natives, a carbohydrate-rich food that is easy to propagate but
difficult to process, at least for the bitter variety, which is poisonous when raw.

It is astonishing that the Indians determined that these tubers were edible at all. To
detoxify manioc, the tubers had to be peeled and grated and the pulp put into long, supple
cylinders—called tipitis—made of woven plant fibers. Each tube was then
hung with a heavy weight at the bottom, which compressed the pulp and expressed the
poisonous juice. The pulp could then be removed, washed and roasted, rendering it safe to
eat. The product was a toasted, coarse meal or flour known as farinha de mandioca,
which is as basic to the diet of Brazilians today as it was to the early Indians.
(Invariably, it will be found as a table top condiment accompanying the salt and pepper
shakers.)

Starch settling out from the extracted juice was heated on a flat surface, causing
individual starch grains to pop open and clump together into small, round granules called
tapioca. The extracted juice, boiled down to remove the poison, was used as the basis of
the sauce known as tucupi. In the northern region of modern Brazil, several noted
and delicious dishes incorporate this traditional sauce.

Manioc meal became many things in the hands of the Indian women. Pulverized meal was
mixed with ground fish to produce a concoction called paçoka, or paçoca as
it is known today. For the children, small, sun-dried cakes called carimã were
prepared. There was a porridge or paste known as mingau, and thin, crisp snacks
called beijus, made of either tapioca flour or dough from a non-poisonous, or sweet
variety of manioc known as macaxeira or aipim. These sweet manioc tubers,
which are somewhat fibrous but considerably easier to prepare, were also pared, boiled for
several hours to soften them and eaten like potatoes.

The popularity today of a snack of fried, sweet manioc strips, Brazil’s answer to
French fries, further attests to the important contribution of this foodstuff to Brazilian
cuisine by the Indians.

Corn was another Indian staple that the colonists used as a substitute for wheat.
Learning from the Indians, the Portuguese made corn porridges called acanijic,
which can be found today as canjica or mugunzá, and used corn husks as
containers to steam a sweet mixture of corn and coconut called pamuna, which came
to be known as pamonha.

The continuing preference for manioc and corn flours over wheat is apparent in many
areas of Brazil today. A great variety of these flours is available, including the fine,
sweet or sour types, called polvilhos, made from tapioca starch. Cheese rolls
called pão de queijo (see recipe) made from polvilho flour and eaten while
still warm are incomparable.

It is clear that the Portuguese settlers early on had come to appreciate the indigenous
foodstuffs that they had originally eaten out of necessity because the climate did not
allow for wheat production. Eventually, they began cultivating sugar cane and in the
middle of the sixteenth century had turned to Africa for slaves to work the fields. In the
process, they introduced to the African continent both manioc and the Indian way of
processing it into an edible form. Thus manioc took "root" in Africa also and
became an important part of the foodways of many people there.

For a taste treat, try the following recipes using manioc meal. This product is
obtainable in specialty stores carrying Brazilian and other South American food items, and
is also available in most Asian food stores.

Recipes

Farofa de Manteiga
Buttered manioc meal.
Serves 4.

This recipe is one of many ways
plain manioc meal can be embellished
with flavorful ingredients.

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion coarsely chopped
1 egg
1 cup manioc meal
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté onion in butter until soft, but not browned. Reduce heat and add egg, stirring
until scrambled and well mixed. Gradually add manioc meal until the mixture becomes golden
and resembles toasted bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper and stir in parsley.

Pão de Queijo
Cheese Rolls
Makes 12.

These rolls are especially popular
in the center-west, southeastern and
southern regions of Brazil.

1 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
6 tablespoons plain yogurt, nonfat or regular
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450°F. Put tapioca starch in a metal bowl. Mix oil, water and salt in
a pan. Bring to a boil. Pour the sputtering mixture onto the tapioca starch carefully to
protect yourself from hot spatters. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Dough will be stiff.
When cool enough to touch, add egg and mix well. Blend in yogurt. When well mixed, stir in
cheese. Rub hands with oil and form batter into balls. Place on a greased baking sheet.
Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Bake 25_30 minutes, or until done. The rolls puff up
during baking, but become flattened when cool.

Copyright 1997, Ginkgo Press, Inc.

Joan Peterson, with her husband David, are authors of Eat Smart in
Brazil: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods & Embark on a Tasting
Adventure, the first in their "Eat Smart" series of destination cuisine
guides. This guide is available from Ginkgo Press, PO Box 5346, Madison, WI 53705, $14.95
postpaid, charge (MC/Visa) or check. Tel: 608-233-5488. Fax: 608-233-0053. For further
information, contact them through their e-mail: joanp@ginkgopress.com
and be sure to visit their Website:
http://www.ginkgopress.com

 

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